Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Holiday Stupid

So here I am, entering the back half of nearly two weeks to myself, with more than 60 hours of vacation time that I had to use or lose by the 31st ... and I have had no urge to write. None whatsoever.

The Holiday Stupor (which really means "stupid") descended, clogging my brain with obscene amounts of food and work-stress and several visits to The Mall. I blame the mall for the current case of writer's block. Not because I really feel that those few trips truly caused my brain-freeze, but because I prefer to blame malls for everything. My younger sister earned my eternal admiration this year by fulfilling an ambition I have stated for five years but have not yet achieved: she accomplished every bit of her Christmas shopping online, thus avoiding completely the insane crush into too few parking spaces, the plowing through mass-produced merchandise that's been pawed over by hundreds of people, the perfume snipers in the department stores, the aggressive kiosk sellers in the halls with their assortment of The Extremely Random (warm, lavender-scented paraffin wax to dip your feet in? Toasters that only toast hot dog buns and simultaneously steam a weenie? Really?)

I'm trying to rejuvenate with lots of reading. I can't remember the last time when I read three novels in a week, but I'll manage it this time. Already finished Roger Rosenblatt's Beet (hilarious; probably the best academic satire I've read since Russo's Straight Man) and Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street, which I found very moving and tried to learn from structurally.

I also read Billy Collins' latest book straight through this morning. I don't mind Billy Collins; I know there's a whole school of Collins-haters out there. I've never fully understood the vitriol about him. But I do have to admit to feeling that once you've read one good Billy Collins poem, you've read them all. He varies his subjects a bit, but his technique and mannerisms seem to stay so much the same that it's like eating a savory-yet-predictable dish over and over. I found nothing in the new collection to correct that opinion. (If you missed David Orr's review of Collins' last book, The Trouble with Poetry, go read it now. It's not only a clever review but an impressive piece of ventriloquism; I thought that it was fair to Collins in reporting his strengths and weaknesses as a poet, but the accuracy with which Orr managed to get the Collins voice seemed the most stinging aspect of the review. Reading it is a bit like watching someone stand behind a gifted magician and do the exact same routine, but very slowly so that you can see the moment when the rabbit's pulled from his back pocket.)

Anyway, I'm hoping to get the brain back in gear soon. It's incredibly frustrating to have a period of time for writing and no urge/inspiration to do it.

In the meantime, Beltway's new issue is out, a fascinating collection of poems on the theme of museums. I'm honored to have a piece in it.

Happy new year to all and if you've been similarly afflicted by the season, may your own holiday stupid soon pass over.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Robert Bly No Habla Español

Below, a guest blogger on his frustration over Robert Bly's translations of Antonio Machado.


soberbios: pride, arrogance, haughtiness
bendita ilusion: blessed illusion
ciencia: knowledge, learning

Robert Bly: worst translator ever? I can’t make that claim since I haven’t read every translation in every language. But I wonder if any other readers out there have encountered translations as exploitive and distorted as Robert Bly’s?

In his translation of Machado, the Spanish poet of the early 20th century, check out these lines (even if you don’t know Spanish):

En todas partes he visto
caravanes de tristeza,
SOBERBIOS y melancholicos.

Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve seen
excursions of sadness
ANGRY and melancholy ...

Ignoring the clumsiness of "excursions" instead of "caravans of sadness," why does Bly use "angry" instead of "pride" or "arrogance"?

Anoche cuando dormia

Last night, as I was sleeping,

"Marvelous error" instead of "blessed illusion"?

corazon maduro
de sombra y de CIENCIA.

a heart made mature
by darkness and ART.

Obviously, the primary meaning of "ciencia" is "science." A secondary meaning is "knowledge." I could even see translating it as "wisdom." But "art"? Clearly, Bly is exploiting Machado for his own purposes. Unfortunately, he is one of the most prolific translators of Spanish-language poetry. Before I could read much Spanish, a teacher warned me off Bly and told me Alistair Reid was the much more reliable and artful translator.

- Mouse (Raton)


My thoughts: I don't envy anyone who takes on the work of trying to preserve the nuances, inflections, and even the sonic qualities of poetry in another language. Even with the best of intentions, the result will always be its own new creature; a translator can't help but leave a fingerprint, and some things are truly untranslatable. And given Bly's prolific work as a translator—he's translated vast reams of poetry not only in Spanish, but in many other languages as well—we likely have him to thank for exposing many English-speaking readers to works they never would have otherwise encountered.

That said, go back to "many other languages" note: Bly's taken on poetry in Spanish, French, Norwegian, Persian, Urdu, German, and Swedish. Does he speak all of these languages with anything resembling fluency? I know many translators work with assistants who are more fluent than they are (Robert Hass actually worked directly with Czeslaw Milosz, a hell of an aid in translating his own work). Maybe Bly had a good native-speaking guide for all of these. But where's the line between translation and creation? Should we celebrate the fact that we can read these authors, or that we can read a Bly-toned version of these authors?

The results of his work on the Machado poems cited above remind me of stories about changelings, those substitute babies in folklore. Brought by fairies to replace a stolen child, they bear a resemblance to the original, but something is creepily off.

Thoughts on this tricky art? Ever tried it? Ever been frustrated by a tainted translation, or are you more grateful that any version of these writers is accessible?